Tennis: a sport searching for a surface

Tennis is perhaps the only major global sport which does not have a single standardized playing surface. Obviously, when the modern game was first developed in the late 19th century, it was primarily played on grass (hence ‘Lawn Tennis’) and in fact, until 1974 three of the four Grand Slams (except the French Open) were played on grass. Over the past 100+ years, the sport has experimented with a number of surface types.

While the lack of standardization separates tennis from other major professional sports, it has also created variety in the game and allowed players of different styles to emerge and dominate the game over the years.

However, over the years tournaments have progressively dropped ‘high maintenance surfaces’ like grass and carpet in favor of durable surfaces like hard court and clay. In fact, grass is now restricted to just one Grand Slam and 3-4 tournaments that take place just before and after Wimbledon. I find it ridiculous that there is not a single Masters 1000 tournament played on grass; surely Queen’s Club is prestigious enough that it could have an expanded field and upgraded to a Masters 1000 status? How many more Masters tournaments would Roger Federer have won if this had been so? Similarly, carpet was a popular surface, especially for indoor tournaments and the year-end ATP championships have been held on this surface as well. It helped players with big serves, but helped baseliners and serve-and-volleyers equally well. Unfortunately, the ATP has not used this as an official surface since 2009…apparently to slow down the game.

So, over the years, both grass courts and carpet have been abandoned, while hard courts and clay courts have proliferated. Rallies have become longer, while big servers no longer have the advantage as they did until the 1990’s. But the increase in hard courts has come at a price and in recent years, Rafa Nadal has made much of the fact that the large number of hard court tournaments are responsible for injuries and are threatening to shorten tennis careers – his in particular!

I feel that the ATP must make one of two decisions. One – they can adopt a single surface as other global sports have done; create an all new artificial surface which is soft enough not to destroy players’ bodies, but has a ‘medium’ speed which supports all types of play. Or, they should embrace the fact that variety adds dimension to the sport and go back to having different tournaments with different surfaces. But certainly, the current practice of having the sport dominated by a super-slow clay surface and a super-hard and injury-inducing hard surface seems to be a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

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